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Luxurious Duesenberg set a world standard

August 27, 2006|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

There's no beating around the bush when it comes to the J-Series Duesenberg.

It's quite simply one of the most exquisite motor cars ever constructed. Fewer than 500 were produced during the company's brief existence, and the few examples that remain command millions of dollars on those rare occasions when they reach the auction block. Today, Duesenbergs are treated like rare objects d'art, much like a painting by Monet or Rembrandt.

Of all the cars created by brothers Fred and August (Augie) Duesenberg, none are more significant or contain the forward-thinking technical advancements of the Model J. The car, or rather its chassis and engine, were commissioned by Errett L. Cord, who had purchased the struggling Duesenberg Motor Company in 1926. Cord already owned the Auburn Motor Company and also produced Cord-branded luxury automobiles. He was quick to recognize the genius of the Duesenbergs and appreciated their already considerable accomplishments. Race cars sporting the Duesenberg label had captured the land speed record at Daytona Beach in 1920, won the Le Mans endurance race in France the following year and took the checkered flag at the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927.

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Cord's vision was to have the brothers construct nothing less than the world's greatest motor car. He wanted a no-expense-spared automobile that would surpass all the great European marques, including Rolls Royce, Mercedes-Benz, Bugatti and Hispano-Suiza. This was the Roaring '20s, an era when the economy was at full throttle, money was plentiful, and there was an abundance of wealthy folks willing and able to pay for such extravagance. An American-built car at the pinnacle of the luxury class looked like a sure thing.

From their factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Duesenberg brothers set about to turn Cord's dream into reality. Two years later, on December 1, 1928, the ultimate Duesenberg, designated Model J, was presented at the New York Auto Show. The car's mechanical components were years - even decades - ahead of their time. Power was provided by a 6.9-liter (420-cubic-inch) inline eight-cylinder engine that featured dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, aluminum alloy pistons and connecting rods and a five-main-bearing-crankshaft. The car also included a three-speed synchromesh manual transmission and power-assisted 15-inch hydraulic drum brakes that could be adjusted by means of a dashboard-mounted switch. The Model J's custom instrument panel also included a tachometer, stopwatch, altimeter and barometer.

The initial price for a Model J was $8,500, which, at the time, was enough money to buy more than a dozen Fords or Chevrolets. That bought you the rolling chassis (available in two wheelbase lengths) and the engine. Buyers still had to shell out an additional amount - at least $2,500 - for a custom-made body. A number of suppliers were commissioned to create highly specialized shapes, including touring sedans, dual-cowl phaetons, four-door convertibles and two-seat roadsters.

Despite their prodigious weight (at least 5,500 pounds with body), a Model J was capable of speeds well in excess of 100 mph. Additional performance became available in May of 1932 with the release of the SJ series. The "S" stood for supercharged, a power-boosting innovation that had helped the Duesenberg brothers become three-time champions of the Indianapolis 500. With its extremely low 5.2:1 compression ratio, the "straight-eight" engine was perfectly suited for the supercharger. Thus equipped, the Model SJ made 320 horsepower, 55 more than the normal J-Series. The factory also claimed that a phaeton-bodied car could hit 100 mph from a standing start in 20 seconds, top 104 mph in second gear and reach a top speed of 129 mph.

On the road, you could tell an SJ from a regular-strength J by its four chromed exhaust tubes that exited the engine cover on the passenger side.

Sadly, the development of the SJ, along with the short-wheelbase SSJ models (only two were made, owned by actors Clark Gable and Gary Cooper) marked the beginning of the end for Duesenberg. In June, 1932, a month following the SJ's launch, Fred Duesenberg died of pneumonia, leaving Augie to keep the factory running. Fred had been injured earlier in a crash while driving an SJ, and his death was partly attributed to that accident.

The last of the 470 J/SJ Duesenbergs rolled off the assembly line and into the hands of their wealthy owners in 1934. By then, the Great Depression had a firm grip on the country and the good times of the 1920s were a distant memory. Duesenberg production had understandably slowed to a trickle. In 1935, the company attempted one last model, the long-wheelbase JN. But two years later, after only 10 new cars had been made, company owner E.L. Cord was forced to shut down all of his automotive operations. The once-mighty Duesenberg brand, which had stood for the very best in quality, class and performance (the phrase, "it's a doozy" can still be heard on occasion), was no more.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and automotive history writer.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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